The implementation of affirmative action policies to redress inequality faced by members of underrepresented groups, such as women, LGTBQ or ethnic minorities, constitutes one of the most contested and polarising forms of identity politics. Affirmative action policies tend to be perceived as a zero-sum game for scarce positions, such as by favouring a candidate at the expense of others because of his or her group membership. The introduction of a gender boardroom quota for listed companies is one of the most well-known forms of affirmative action policies. This policy has received a particularly large media coverage because it implicates a strong state intervention in the economy to redress gender inequality in leadership positions. Moreover, the 2012 directive proposition of the European Commission to increase the number of women on corporate boards by 40% in publicly listed companies helped in mediatizing this particular form of affirmative action policies in favour of women in various European countries. However, despite this proposed legislation, women accounted in 2019 for just 27.8% of board members of the largest publicly-listed companies registered in EU countries.
In two recent studies, we investigated the polarization of public opinion on the introduction of such a gender quota for company boards. We were interested not only in understanding why citizens support or oppose such a policy, but also which contextual characteristics explain differences between EU countries with high and low levels of overall support for a gender quota.
To get more insight into the contextual determinants of quota support, we looked at differences in the overall support for a gender boardroom quota across European countries with Eurobarometer data of 2011. Figure 1 shows that support for boardroom quotas for women varies widely between countries. The main interesting pattern behind these cross-national differences is that citizens´ opposition to the introduction of a gender boardroom quota is largest in countries with a relatively high level of gender equality in politics and the economy, such as in Scandinavian countries. These results suggest a potential backlash against gender equality politics, at least regarding affirmative action policies in favour of women in the economy. Based on these results, we assume that citizens from countries with a relatively high level of overall gender equality perceive such an intervention of the state in the economy as no longer necessary for redressing gender inequality.
Figure 1: Average level of support and gender gap in support for a gender boardroom quota by country
Source: Own calculations using Eurobarometer 2011 (76.1.)
In a second study, we focused on the case of Germany using survey data of 2017 from the German Internet Panel to understand the individual-level mechanisms of support for gender boardroom quotas. Here, a statutory gender boardroom quota was introduced in 2016 after a long and controversial debate in the media. Overall, women as target group of this policy tend to support the quota to a larger extent than men.
However, support for a gender quota does not cut neatly across the genders of survey respondents. Indeed, we found interesting differences in the level of support within the target group of women and within the non-target group of men. Those women most likely to benefit personally from a quota — single mid-aged women in upper management positions — were the most supportive. By contrast, those men most opposed to the gender quota mirrored the results for the most supportive women: young men in upper management position. Figure 2 presents the differences in the level of support among men and women along their labour market positions. An interest-based perspective can explain these results: young men in upper management positions are the most likely to see the introduction of such a gender quota for leadership positions as a threat to their prospective labour market chances. By contrast, older women in upper management positions compose the social group most likely to benefit personally from it. The interplay of gender and position on the labour market thus seems pivotal for attitudes towards affirmative action policies in favour of women.
Figure 2: Support for a gender boardroom quota by leadership status and gender
Source: Own estimations based on German Internet Panel (GIP) 2017 (N=2544); Note: Estimates and 95% CIs.
However, citizens seem not only to think in terms of their personal interest but also in terms of the interest of their household when expressing their support for or opposition to a gender quota. Indeed, among the target group, married women (including women in a partnership) constitute the female respondents who report the largest opposition to a gender quota. Married women seem to defend the interest of their household, rather than their own, as their opposition to a quota might be interpreted as the reaction of a perceived threat to their husband’s labour market opportunities. In a mirrored pattern, the most supportive men are married or in a partnership and who are not the household´s main breadwinner. We see here that perceived interest of the household plays an important role next to personal interest in explaining variation in the level of support for a gender quota.
Our results suggest that the introduction of affirmative action policies might be a risky endeavour for policymakers as these measures draw lines between – seemingly privileged- target-groups and non-target groups that are excluded from the benefits of such policies.
Möhring, K., Teney, C. & Buss, C. (2019): Who supports gender quotas for company leadership? An empirical analysis of determinants of support and rejection among German citizens. Soziale Welt, 70 (2): 121-143. open access
Möhring, K. & Teney, C. (online first): “Equality prescribed? Contextual determinants of citizens´ support for gender boardroom quotas across Europe”, Comparative European Politics.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.